Once more the party-list systemBy Fr. Joaquin G. Bernas S. J.
Philippine Daily Inquirer
In an earlier column, I wrote that I would not be unhappy if the party-list system were to be abolished. But to achieve abolition, a constitutional amendment is needed. Considering, however, that we have a president who is averse to constitutional amendments and who controls Congress which alone can set an amendment in motion, we must live with the party-list system warts and all. Let me therefore just say something about matters that are being currently debated and are giving the Commission on Elections sleepless nights.
To understand the debate about the party-list organizations themselves and the qualification of their representatives, we should go back to the text of the Constitution. It says: “The party-list representatives shall constitute twenty per centum of the total membership of the House of Representatives including those under the party list. For three consecutive terms after the ratification of this Constitution, one-half of the seats allocated to party-list representatives shall be filled, as provided by law, by selection or election from the labor, peasant, urban poor, indigenous cultural communities, women, youth, and such other sectors as may be provided by law, except the religious sector.”
There are two main questions arising from this text. The first question is whether the membership of the organization must always consist of the underprivileged “labor, peasant, urban poor, indigenous cultural communities, women, youth and such other sectors as may be provided by law, except the religious sector”; or is the required underprivileged membership only for the first three consecutive terms after the ratification of the Constitution?
Since the start of the implementation of the system, the understanding has always been that the classes enumerated under the Constitution are examples of the classes which may initiate a party-list organization. They are usually referred to as underprivileged or underrepresented. The constitutional enumeration is not exclusive. It can include other sectors “as may be provided by law” but, of course, under the principle of euisdem generis. Thus Republic Act 7941 (Party-List System Act) has expanded the list to include “fisherfolk, elderly, handicapped, veterans, overseas workers, and professionals” to make a total of 12 sectors.
But was it the intention of the Constitutional Commission that, for these sectors to continue as party-list organizations, the members must remain “underprivileged and underrepresented”? I do not see it that way. The reason that these underprivileged sectors were given three consecutive terms without competition was to help them build up their strength. And strength can come from the improvement of the lot of the members. This, after all, was the social justice aim of the party-list system—to uplift the life of the masses.
The law, however, does not say what is to be done with the party-list organizations that have gained the strength of regular political parties and have grown capable of participating in the rough and tumble of regular party politics. Can the Comelec disqualify them now? It seems to me that legislation is needed to answer this question.
The next important question is whether those who are to represent the party-list organization must belong to one or other of the classes of underprivileged citizens, that is, labor, peasant, urban poor, indigenous cultural communities, women, youth, fisherfolk, elderly, handicapped, veterans, overseas workers and professionals.
The Constitution does not prescribe a social class requirement for the party-list representative. For its part RA 7941 simply says that the party-list representative must be “a bona fide member of the party he seeks to represent for at least ninety (90) days preceding election day.”
The distinction that must be made is between belonging to a class and belonging to an organization. A party-list representative does not have to belong to one of the 12 underprivileged classes. But he must be a bona fide member of an organization championing the cause of the underprivileged. In other words, although he socially might not be one of them, his heart should belong to them. That, for instance, is what Mikey Arroyo claimed where his heart rested.
Take another case, the Ako Bicol. The representatives of Ako Bicol do not belong to any one of the underprivileged classes. Although they are professionals, the professionals referred to by law are health workers, artists, cultural workers and the like but not high-priced medical or legal practitioners. From what I have seen in the papers, the representatives of Ako Bicol are not any of these! They seem to be bona fide members of the organization they represent. The Comelec did not question their bona fide membership; but the Comelec questioned the legitimacy of Ako Bicol itself.
Ako Bicol was considered qualified three years ago. Was Ako Bicol disqualified now because the status of its members had improved or because the Comelec erred three years ago? If it was an error three years ago, does the disqualification retroact to three years ago? If it does, what would be the status of the current representatives?
Jurisprudence places the task of determining the qualification of party-list organizations in the hands of the independent Comelec. Did the Comelec commit grave abuse of discretion by disqualifying Ako Bicol?
P.S.: The best explanation of “Undas” I got was as an acronym for “Unos dias de los santos y de las almas.”
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